On March 11, 2020, everything stopped.
The world as we knew it, what we took so heavily for granted, was about to change. Our identities, our ways of life, were about to be altered drastically. No one could predict what was about to happen, and when it all went dark, all of us were left to pick up the pieces and figure out…what next?
The Dubuque Fighting Saints were rolling a year ago. They sat in second place in the Eastern Conference, well ahead of Green Bay and Team USA in the standings, and were poised for another playoff appearance. They owned a .708 points percentage, a +57 goal differential, and a staggering 19-6-0 mark at the Mystique Community Ice Center.
“We were flying,” said Fighting Saints head coach Oliver David. “We were really flying.”
Who would have ever thought that the lights would go out indefinitely after a 3-0 win over the rival Waterloo Black Hawks—the team’s 33rd win of the season? The tenth anniversary celebration, the deep playoff run to come, all of it, cut short. Gone in a second. Stephen Halliday’s empty net goal at the 19:56 mark of the third period put the finishing touches on a win that was only good for the record books.
Just one week later, the announcement came. At 9:30 a.m. central time, March 18, 2020, commissioner Tom Garrity laid down the hammer. It was a unanimous decision by the USHL Board of Directors. The health and safety of players and staffs and fans came first. Hockey was just an afterthought in this new societal roadmap to come.
In fact, the entire Fighting Saints team had taken a bus to Youngstown for a weekend set with the Phantoms before finally getting the phone call that those games wouldn’t happen at all.
Knowing the season was over was a gut punch. Everyone felt it.
“Honestly, those feelings carried over into this year. We all had a great time together. We were a great group,” said forward Robert Cronin. “It hurt for a while. It took until a month into this season to shift the focus and basically move on, turn the page, and look at what you have now.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be over it,” added Fighting Saints trainer Megan Monjeau. “It was such a really good group of guys. When our season ended and everyone went home so abruptly, it was like your children went home, and never left a note saying when they would be back.”
Monjeau was in the midst of her first season as the lead athletic trainer for the Fighting Saints. It just so happens that her first voyage into the world as top cheddar would be forever cut short. Cronin said he could not help but tear up talking to family back home about how something so special was uncontrollably done.
The wait was on. How long would this pause on our normal lives be? Everyone knew one day hockey would be back. It would be a risk, but the show had to go on at some point.
On September 29, 2020, six months later, the league announced its return. 54 games, and a regionally-based schedule from November 5 to April 24. Protocols were put into place to keep everyone as safe as possible, which meant significant sacrifices from inherently social late teens to be able to play once again.
“It’s hard on the guys to be wearing a mask every day, not being able to see their families often, to go from their billet families’ home to the rink and that’s it,” David said. “We remind the players as a staff of the world we’re living in every day. But also they hear from siblings or friends or ex-teammates that don’t have the chance to play, and they realize how serious we are about their safety.”
Not every team has received the privilege to play again. Some leagues across the world at all levels remain in the dark as they try to find their way to getting back onto the ice safely and securely.
Cronin, a commit to the University of New Hampshire, in the final year of his junior eligibility, was more than ready.
“I was so pumped when I heard the season was happening, I couldn’t be more happy,” he said. “When I saw the schedule was coming out, I couldn’t have gotten out here to Dubuque fast enough.” Cronin laughed, the excitement beaming from his face as to just how special it was to play at the Masterpiece on the Mississippi.
When the mind is on hockey, and development, and school, it is sometimes hard to see the forest through the trees. Monjeau spends a lot of time getting to know the players through daily treatment sessions, and sometimes she has to lay down the law.
“The biggest thing has been reminding them that they’re lucky that they get to play at all,” Monjeau said. “Sometimes I have to remind them that they’re here and they’re lucky enough to get an opportunity to play and get scholarships and move on to the next level, and not wait another year to do that.”
Riley Stuart, an alternate captain, and commit to Arizona State University, in his second season with the Fighting Saints, tries to keep the level head amongst his teammates.
“It’s definitely eye-opening to see the opportunity we’ve been given,” Stuart said. “Being given the letter on my sweater, it gives me the chance to take some of the younger players under my wing, be more of a leader, and give myself more opportunity than last year, and I hope I can keep building on it in the future.”
All around the country, one year later, fans are beginning to slowly but surely return to their respective barns to cheer on their teams. More recently, NHL teams have been allowing a limited number of fans to safely take in the game. The toll on all of us has been catastrophic, in one way or another.
“I feel indebted to Brad Kwong and our ownership group for figuring out a way to keep us working while simultaneously putting one hundred percent trust in the way we were going to have to operate in terms of safety,” David said. “Canceling games is a hard thing for an ownership group to stomach. But Brad has supported everything we have done. He had the foresight to keep this thing running, not knowing when the season would start up, and having the foresight of knowing there would be a lot of lost revenue but still wanting to have a season.”
“If you want to say anything about our ownership group, I would say ours is all in, and they have made it pretty clear that money is not the end-all-be-all.”
David is a hockey coach, yes, but a husband and a father first. He talked about how the commitment from the ownership group was life-saving. He was able to continue to provide for his family in the midst of the unknown, and how grateful he was to be looked after.
The Mystique Community Ice Center continues to reverberate with the sound of cowbells from the fervent fanbase. Hockey is alive in Dubuque, and that’s music to the players’ ears. Safety remains key. Signs around the concourse promote handwashing, social distancing, and mask wearing. Yes, not everything is back to “normal,” yet, but we are getting there, slowly but surely.
There is reason to believe that we will get there. This past year, marred with pain in so many ways, anguish, tragedy and irreversible change, will not be forgotten. Ever.
Hockey is just a game—an avenue of entertainment, a vehicle to take our fears and frustrations away. Nothing can, nor should it, compare to the loss of a loved one, or the long-term health and societal effects that this time has had on us.
However, as the sign emblazoning the Fighting Saints fitness center states: “My day to day is the way.” All we can do is take life one day at a time, and do what we can with it. A year ago, perhaps we did not have the insight to understand this, but on March 11, 2021, perhaps we do.